Dr. Hutch: great things about cycling

I recently leafed through a copy of Cycling Weekly from 2010, looking for an old race report. I didn’t find it. I ended up reading my column instead.

This is normally something I avoid doing, mainly for fear of discovering I’ve been writing exactly the same thing every week for the last six years. The column was about victory celebrations, and it mentioned approvingly Lance Armstrong’s rage-fuelled air-punch at the top of Alpe d’Huez in 2001.

“Ouch!” I said to myself. “I wouldn’t say that now.” It was the stage that had included Armstrong mugging exhausted expressions to the TV cameras, then going to the front, giving Jan Ullrich the famous glare before taking off up the mountain.

Of course, none of this happened. Armstrong, Ullrich and most of the rest of them have been airbrushed out of both history and memory. In fact, I recently saw some photographs that featured some of the most significant moments of that 
Tour with the dopers Photoshopped out. They were pictures of empty Alpine roads.

We’re inconsistent, though. At one extreme, almost everyone discounts everything Armstrong ever did. Fewer erase Marco Pantani when making historical revisions – most people still have him down as 1998 Tour winner, and I’m not sure that his tragic death is all that significant a factor in that.

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Villains and victims
The passage of time is part of it. National chauvinism is part of it. But most of it is more individual. Armstrong was a crushing, alpha-presence, both from a racing and a personality point of view, yet he attracted fans whose love of him was surprisingly personal.

They felt especially let down when the truth came out. He was, and is, a very easy person to turn against, because he is so very clearly angry about almost everything. I think we all feel that he can cope with our anger, so we feel free to ladle it on.

Pantani had something more winsome and romantic about him. Even in his racing pomp, he was eminently fallible. Doping appeared to be his weakness rather than his strength.

The man who didn’t win the 2000 Tour battles tragic hero Pantani (r)

One of cycling’s perverse strengths is the extent to which almost everyone’s view of the sport extends far beyond the actual racing itself. There are sports like tennis (cough) or football (cough, cough) that 
are watched with a naive belief that whoever scores more points wins. What we have with cycling is gloriously sophisticated 
in comparison.

In cycling, winning is infinitely negotiable. Any post-race discussion can turn into an edition of Newsnight Review. You can scratch out anyone you like on the basis that they’re a convicted doper, they’re frankly just a bit too good to avoid arousing suspicion, or even, since we left objectivity behind some time ago, because you don’t like them very much. A friend of mine maintains the moral winner of the 2011 Tour was Andy Schleck, because he discounts any result of Cadel Evans’s on the basis that he never looks happy.

Success is negotiable
It goes further – even if someone is clean, rides at a speed modest enough to avoid suspicion and grins like a chainsaw murderer, you can always massage their success levels. “Ooh, yes,” you can say, “I agree, he’s squeaky clean, but remember when he was in a break on stage 14 with, ahem, Santambrogio? Well, he’d hardly have got that gap on his own, would he?” The formal classification is nothing more than a factor to throw into the post-race re-imagining.

All of this makes the current assumption that cycling has substantially cleaned up its act even more valuable. Back in the bad old days we all used to know that, as a sport, it was as crooked as hell. Now we don’t even really know that. Maybe the results are actually real? It’s another shifting layer of uncertainty to add to the others. That can only be a good thing. Or at least I think so.

What we’re mainly dealing with here are what’s called ‘exercise-associated muscle cramps’, or less formally, “Aargh! 
God damn it! Aaaargghhh!!” It occurs during or immediately after exercise, and usually affects the thighs, calves or the arch of the foot.

Normally what happens is that everything is going splendidly, you’re a bit tired, but it’s all under control, when suddenly a muscle involuntarily decides to try to jump clear of your skeleton by a sudden, spasm-like contraction. The pain can be intense, exacerbated by the unnerving feeling that you’re about to have to deal with an insurrection from your own body.

Why they happen is not really very clear. Traditional explanations revolve around electrolyte deficiencies caused by sweating and the fluid imbalance this causes in the muscles. More recent explanations involve theories of neuromuscular fatigue – the control mechanisms between the spinal cord and the muscle go haywire when you’re tired.

Generally, though, most of us accept that the real underlying reason for muscle cramps is karma. Otherwise, why do they invariably strike at the worst possible moment? If there was some innocent, physiological explanation, it would be a random phenomenon, and it clearly isn’t. Muscle cramps are God’s way of telling you that you should have done more training or, alternatively, that you shouldn’t have entered an event that was so obviously beyond your capabilities.

There is no sure-fire cure. Some swear by bananas, some by tonic water, some by hydration and some by the sacrifice of their first-born. If you’ve ever had really bad cramp, you’ll want to try them all.

Acts of cycling stupidity
I’m pleased to report a success on the cycling public relations front. A friend of a friend was noodling along though one of the local villages, when he chanced upon a runaway mobility scooter. It was careering along the road at 4mph. More terrifying still, it had a helpless West Highland Terrier in a basket on the front. He could tell it was helpless by the way its tongue was hanging out of its mouth and it was panting in panic.

Bravely, like a sheriff from the old west rescuing a runaway stagecoach, he rode alongside, and reached over to turn it off.

Not far away, he found the elderly owner, and told him what he’d done. “Well don’t just stand there,” he said, “go and fetch it! Stupid bloody cyclist.” The dog tried to bite him, too.

This article was first published in the June 20 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!